Korea has given us tae kwon do, an Olympic sport since the 2000 Games, and the world’s most popular martial art—one that is officially practiced by approximately 50 million people in 120 countries worldwide.
Martial arts enjoy enormous popularity in Korea. Nearly every street corner in Seoul has a “dojang,” a martial training school, and tae kwon do has been taught in the country’s primary schools since the 1970s. Today, approximately 50 million people around the world practice this Olympic sport, making it the most popular martial art in the world.
Korea’s long and turbulent history has also played its part in the development of martial arts, as have the numerous wars that have taken place on the peninsula, from early Chinese domination to the 20th-century occupation by Japan.
Korean martial arts have been shaped by religion and philosophy, most notably Buddhism and Confucianism. The Buddhist element gave the country its martial code during the Silla dynasty (57 BCE-935 CE): loyalty to one’s king; obedience to one’s parents; honorable conduct to one’s friends; never to retreat in battle; and only to kill for a good reason.
Origins of Korean martial arts
Because of its early isolationist policies, many of Korea’s fighting cultures developed independently of any technological advances. Favoring the bow, the Koreans did not develop sword and bladed-weapon arts to the same degree as China and Japan. The wooden staff, or “bo,” also failed to find popularity in the country.
The earliest evidence of Korean martial arts dates back to the Koguryo dynasty, founded in 37 BCE. The disputed tombs of the Sambo-Chong, located in Jilin province in modern-day China, depict fighters engaging in unarmed combat. Korean wrestling competitions, similar to sumo, were common occurrences on national holidays in ancient Korea, and ssireum, the traditional form of Korean wrestling, is still popular today. Koreans are also noted for their archery skills and have won many international and Olympic titles.
The Japanese occupation of Korea following the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 led to a number of significant developments in the evolution of Korean martial arts. Following liberation, many martial arts were codified and popularized, most famously tae kwon do. The nation, and particularly the military, recognized the importance of this process, not only for unarmed combat, but also as a means of building morale among the army and civilian population.
After the war, many of the Koreans who had been living in Japan—either as laborers or inductees in the Japanese military—stayed on and played their part in influencing Japanese and world martial arts.
Since 1945, the country has been divided into two sections: the communist north and the democratic south. Differing governing bodies of martial arts exist on both sides of the cultural divide and recently there have been a number of friendly sporting and educational exchanges between the two sections.
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